After three difficult years unlike any other in churchworld (and the world at large) we are all left wondering what the year ahead will bring. And as a pastor, my number one question is definitely: what will the Church look like in 2023? I am no prophet or seer, I’m not always even clear on what is actually going on in the present moment, much less what the future holds. But a few things seem to be emerging that are worth noting.
My half-empty church on Sunday mornings is no longer an occasion for despair or even depression. As I noted in a previous post, I have come to accept that we are not returning to pre-COVID attendance numbers anytime soon. When this pattern emerged it puzzled me, but I think it is now clear what is going on. A portion of our regular in-person congregation fell out of the habit of weekly attendance. They might still consider themselves parishioners, some of them join us online, some are once-a-month or once-a-season attendees, and some of them actually still give financially. They’re just no longer “never-miss-a-Sunday” kind of Catholics.
Every pastor I talk to is experiencing this same stagnant in-person attendance and I think it will continue to be a feature of 2023. But it doesn’t have to remain so if our parishes’ can identify and successfully reach out to the unchurched. At our parish, this will mean renewed promotion of our “invest & invite” evangelization strategy in which parishioners make an investment in unchurched friends and family and then make an invitation to church. The flip side of this strategy is all about creating church-wide message series that are appealing to the unchurched, like our New Year series coming up this weekend, all about combating clutter in our lives.
A lot of pastors don’t want to hear this, but the truth is online church is a permanent part of the church landscape just as much as online shopping is a permanent part of the retail landscape. Ignore that fact at your own peril. Carey Nieuwhof has an excellent blog on this going so far as to assert that growing churches will grow faster as they invest and expand their online service and declining churches will see an acceleration of their decline, and even face death as they continue to ignore it.
I understand the concern in our Catholic community that gathering for the Eucharist is centered on receiving Holy Communion, which our online congregation is missing out on. I have a recent blog post on this question and among the arguments I make is the following. If the choice is between losing contact with these parishioners altogether or having them join us online obviously that is no choice at all. And I firmly believe there are ways to underscore the importance of Holy Communion so as to increase a desire to receive it.
Our country has sadly reached an unheard of level of polarization probably not seen since the Civil War. This year will increasingly be about the upcoming and likely deeply contentious presidential election, only making matters worse. Unfortunately, this political and cultural division has crept into the Christian community and, most acutely, the Catholic Church. What previously were largely polite differences in liturgical and musical preferences and respectfully held opposing attitudes toward some Church teaching, have become the source of deep divisions, increasingly melded together with our conservative or liberal politics.
Of course there are small congregations where like-minded people have found a home and the pastor preaches to his base. But these are not growing churches and, in some instances, they are not healthy churches. To be a healthy, growing church, pastors and parish staff should be creating an environment where, to use the hackneyed phrase, everyone is welcome. That can only happen if care and attention is put into parish messaging and communication, down to details like what are we praying for in the Eucharistic Prayer or advertising in the bulletin. The goal being a “safe” environment that is a refuge and a relief from the polarization experienced everywhere else we go. Creating that kind of space will definitely help grow a healthy parish.
2023 will be a year full of challenges for churches large and small. It can also be a year that brings grace and blessings. May it be such for your parish.
Happy New Year!
This blog was written by Father Michael White, the Pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. Contact Fr. White at [email protected].